The draw is made, the media have named the traditional ‘group of death’ (unlucky for some – I’m looking at you, Portugal) and the locals have had their first World Cup themed party. Football fans are already looking past the Winter Olympics, the end of the Premier League season and the possibility that by the time the World Cup comes around they could be two thirds of the way to having a baby (busy tonight? Yes, it really is that far off…), and getting hyped about an event that might – just might – be more popular than the Olympics. Brush off your national shirt, practice your skills and get ready to join the world in cheering whoever plays France, possible the least popular qualifier in history this time round. Here’s the lowdown and you very own ‘don’t hold us to this’ tips.

The Location: You just can’t argue with South Africa as a venue. 2010 will be the first World Cup to be held on the African continent, and just seeing the parties as the group stage draw was made was enough to convince most that it’s about time. They should, fingers crossed, have all the venues ready (unlike Angola for the up and coming African Cup Of Nations), and plenty of political commentators are already talking of how hosting such a mammoth sporting event could bring together a long-fractured country. Sadly, the home team are only a fraction above dire, and short of a dramatic improvement over the next six months, will probably be going home after the group stages. Should star players Steven Pienaar and Benni McCarthy somehow carry the home side through to the second round, we can expect the country to go insane. A repeat of the performance of unfancied hosts South Korea and Japan back in 2002, though, is at best improbable. Some of the other African sides are far more talented, and can also expect some frenzied local support: keep a particularly close eye on The Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon. Of course, plenty of games will be played at ‘half way up a mountain’ height, which could turn things around completely.

The History: We all know the background of the World Cup: the traditional Brazilian tricks (and all those wins), Zinedine Zidane’s head butt against Italy in the final in 2006, England’s rivalry with Argentina dating back to that famous Diego Maradona handball and South Korea’s stunning run to the semis in 2002, when the streets of Seoul ran red. It’s the more bizarre history that really intrigues, though. Ukraine qualified for the first time in 2006, for example, and were motivated by a manager who promised to withdraw the team’s celibacy rules if they made the semi final. The team obviously worked that one out: the quicker way to get back to their other halves turned out to be getting knocked out early. In the case of Columbia, things became far more than just a game, when defender Andres Escobar was murdered in his home country, having scored an own goal in the 1994 final. The first ever African team to qualify were Zaire, who were humiliated over three games by a total of 15 goals to 0, and went home utterly penniless, while in a 2001 qualifying game Australia beat even that, winning 31-0 against American Samoa, an average of more than a goal every three minutes. Cuba, El Salvador and our own South Korea have also been on the receiving end of complete thrashings. In 2006 there were even add-your-own team colors voodoo dolls on sale to ensure the right result. Then, of course, there’s a whole host of FIFA conspiracy theories…

The Qualification: There’s nothing like a few shocks to keep things interesting, and the appearances of North Korea, New Zealand and Algeria in particular have livened things up, though we can probably expect all three to crash out in the first round. Algeria got to the tournament by beating arch rivals Egypt in a one off game in neutral Sudan, where their were attacked viciously before the match, but still managed to win. Their qualification was far from the most controversial, though, with France’s Thierry Henry denying Ireland a penalty shoot out in their play off with a blatant handball, and forever landing himself the nickname ‘Le Cheat’. Costa Rica also had the (bad) luck of the Irish, losing to a Uruguay play off goal that should have been disallowed for offside. Some favorites didn’t make it, such as Russia, Croatia and World Cup mainstays Saudi Arabia, while the likes of Holland, England and Spain blitzed their way through qualification in clinically impressive style. The controversial Diego Maradona’s Argentina made it, but only just, and are far less fancied than normal.

The Tournament: Favorites Spain are the current European Champions, shaking off their long-standing ‘big tournament flops’ label, while Brazil, Italy, Holland and England make up the remainder of the five fancied squads. African football is on the up, though, and many are expecting one of the African sides to reach the final few games of the tournament for the first time. While the Asian and North American/ Caribbean sides are largely expected to flop, the World Cup is notoriously unpredictable, especially in the early changes. Plenty of pundits, in fact, are pointing to the mighty Brazil as a possible early casualty, with Ivory Coast and Portugal – both formidable teams – drawn against them. For most of the favorites, though, the groups will be a formality, and the knock out games will be the big test. Especially the dreaded extra time and penalties. With odds ranging from 7/2 (Spain) to 3000/1 (North Korea and New Zealand), it’s a very open game, as Greece proved winning the European Championship as rank outsiders back in 2004.

The Dream Match Ups:

South Korea vs. North Korea. The qualifying matches between the two have been watching-paint-dry levels of dull at best, but at the world cup… shame the chances of it happening are at best negligible.

England vs. Argentina. Is there a better game in any World Cup than this? Cue tense drama for 90 minutes, followed by years and years of mocking and bitterness, plus comments about Maradona and the Falklands War. There’s a good chance it will happen late in the tournament.

New Zealand vs. Australia. One of the most unlikely match ups, as the kiwis in particular are expected to crash out without doing too much damage in the first round. If they do make it through to play each other, though, expect sparks to fly.

Our Tips: Portugal to go out in the first round after losing out in the ‘group of death’ to Brazil and African stars Ivory Coast. Argentina to crash and burn far earlier than normal. France to make the second round, despite the scorn, then crash and burn too. North Korea to lose every game by at least 3 goals. England to impress, but lose on penalties (it’s inevitable, right?). USA to defend well, but struggle to score, and lose out to Slovenia on goal difference. An African side to reach at least the quarterfinals. South Korea to bother Argentina, but still go out in the group. Spain to beat Brazil in the final.

As published in Eloquence Magazine (South Korea), January 2010.

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